Friday, March 30, 2012

Recently, I happened to be wandering the "back 40" and was keeping a extra eye on the lookout for deer antlers, or "sheds"--as the pros call them.  I've only found one in the 16-year's we've owned the place, so it's not worth a special trip. I didn't find any. A few days later, I read an article in our local paper about how "shed theft" is a rising crime--that unscrupulous types are sneaking on others' properties to collect sheds and sell them for as much as $50-$75.  More if it was a six or eight "pointer."  Then, to seemingly cap it off, last week I was in that large discount store chain that starts with a "W" and ends in a "Mart" and saw they were selling copies of a TV show all about collecting sheds and skulls.  Called "Bone Hunters," the show on Outdoor Channel is apparently popular because the store was selling complete season one and two episodes.   
But this rant isn't really about "sheds" or deer or hunting or even the's about the fact that there is a television show, a weekly television show, that is entirely about collecting antlers!  Really?  If you haven't guessed, the Martini family does not have cable or satellite and has no interest in ever getting it in the forseeable.  I still sit agawk at the concept that there is a channel--and entire channel--dedicated entirely to food.  And not just one, but at least two (Food Network and Cooking Channel)! Furthermore, I simply cannot wrap my head around the concept that in this country of 305-million there are even 30 people who would spend more than five minutes watching such a network.  Obviously I'm dead wrong and completely out of touch, because enough people do watch in order to generate the advertising revenue that creates all of those shows.  A channel for all golf, all fishing, all tennis, all fashion.  Yes, I am the old fuddy-duddy for making fun of something that might be very important to someone.   But next time you want to watch a show about guys in camo sneaking through the nation's forests looking for deer antlers, here's an invite instead:  come on out of your home theater room and into the fresh air at our place where you can pretend you're a TV star and try it yourself (and maybe get a little exercise), if you're so inclined.   Gotta go now--there's a radio show about collecting marbles that's about to start.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Sound of Music Hall

A proposed renovation of Cincinnati's venerable Music Hall has been in the news lately.  The building is obviously historically important but there are many people openly questioning some of the details of the plan...namely, the reduction of seating capacity from 3400 to 1900, the removal of the grand chandelier and some other "improvements."  I'll leave it to others to debate the merits of the renovation plans.  My observations deal with the untold, underlying story.
When I was in fourth grade, it was pretty much expected at St. Al's in Bridgetown that you would at least give music a try.  We had the wonderful Sr. Frances Jean, who could play nearly any instrument, offering lessons for any student for a nominal fee.  I wanted to play the saxophone but after one look at my gangly arms (and the fact that her orchestra was short handed), she convinced me that the trombone was just right for me.  Eddie, who lived next door, chose the trumpet.  Lisa, across the street, played flute.  Although not always the most cooperative trombone student, I plowed through my lessons and recital books in an endless repertoire of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Cucaracha," sounding somewhat terrible but having fun.  So much so, I guess, that I continued to play through high school at LaSalle and undergrad at Xavier.  (Lisa and Eddie didn't continue beyond grad school.)  Many years later, after meeting my wife, I learned she took clarinet lessons in grade school.  Like I say, playing a band instrument was fairly common in the 60s and 70s but the experiences carry on into adulthood.  In a recent conversation among musicians, Holst's "The Planets" came up and I had no problem joining the conversations because we played excerpts once during one of our concerts in college.
In addition to learning and playing a variety of basic and, often, obscure, musical arrangements, it was not uncommon to be surrounded by traditional music in other ways as a kid.  Warner Brothers cartoons often featured melodies from classical and opera mixed into their scores.  We might not have known "The Barber of Seville" was composed by Gioachino Rossini in 1816, but we kids knew the melody very, very well.  It was also not unusual to hear such music in commercials and in movies.  Too bad such music is rare in kids' shows today.
My point is, maybe Music Hall wouldn't have to shrink by 1500 seats if only the current and next generation were exposed to more genres of music.  I can honestly say my mp3 player has music in every format from classical to country to alternative to classic rock to jazz to pipe organ music and I attribute my love of all styles of music to my early exposure in band.  Of course, the competition for kids' attention is much more difficult these days.  Playing a "real" instrument takes time, patience and lots of practice--a sort of antithesis in the instant gratification world.  In addition to competition, classical music, in particular, is very expensive with CSO seats ranging around $80 a seat per concert.  There are no solutions to be offered here and I confess this is more rant than realistic response.  Mandatory participation in music appreciation might not be a bad thing, though (along with "art" and "theater"), as it would fill in gaps not supplied by the internet, facebook and digital gaming.  "Appreciation" of something doesn't have to mean some young person has to enjoy or even like it....rather it means they understand it and the intelligent thoughts behind it.  As a side benefit, if even one percent of the next generation does like it, it could mean adding future seats rather than subtracting. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ripley Tornado Ripple

Sobering.  On Saturday morning, the morning after the tornados passed through the area, I noticed some debris in the front yard outside of our home.  Our house, located in farm country between the towns of Milan and Sunman, in Ripley County, Indiana, managed to avoid the worst of the storms.  However, about 20-miles to our southwest, as the crow flies, lies (what’s left of) Holton, a small town I’ve passed through a dozen or so times over the years.   Holton was laid to waste by an F3 tornado.  Over a dozen homes were destroyed, two people were killed and several people were injured.  And as I gathered the debris in my arms, a cold, sick feeling entered my stomach.   With each piece, my imagination ran wild.

Some shingles, a piece of ceiling tile, a large tuft of insulation…among the kinds of items one might expect after a serious storm.  Then when I lifted a large, 3-foot piece of wood, I noticed it was a piece of paneling—the kind found in living rooms in homes around the country.  But this piece was frayed, shattered and splintered along the edges revealing the incredibly violent ripping apart it underwent by the cyclone.  I also found a tattered piece of wallpaper, and clinging to it a strip of decorative border art.  I could envision the owner, years earlier, in the home improvement store picking it out.  Wouldn’t it look great with the curtains?  I thought about the many birthday parties it probably witnessed and all the family events it saw before it was wrenched away from its family.   The final piece I picked up almost escaped notice…a small piece of paper.  It was a receipt from 1988 for the princely sum of $2.  It must’ve been important enough to keep, possibly in a shoebox under a bed.  I hurried inside with my sorrowful treasures and quickly looked up the name of the lady on the receipt in the phone book:  the address was “Old Michigan Road, Holton, IN.  I felt a sudden strange sadness for the lady and immediately said a prayer for her, as if she were my favorite aunt or lost cousin.  (I later found out through my doctor-wife that her name was not among those admitted to the hospital, so I breathed a little easier, yet still felt a very odd closeness and concern.)

Later that evening, we attended a party at some friends’ near Yorkville, in Dearborn County…ten miles away from us and probably 30 from Holton.  The storm and the name and the piece of paper came up in discussion and the face of our host turned ashen.  She, too, found a piece of paper with a name.  It was the very same.

There are 640 acres in a square mile.  At the point where the storm passed through, the path was at least ten miles’ wide.  The land upon which this woman’s material world, as well as that of the other victims, could number in the tens of thousands of mostly rural—farmland, wooded—very desolate acres.  I could not begin to give a good accounting of our 70-acres and I cannot imagine how far some of those relics could have traveled.  A co-worker who lives in Newtown, on the eastern side of Cincinnati, found a piece of paper from Henryville, IN, near Louisville, so obviously debris can travel for hundreds of miles.  And yet I felt an urge to do something—to look in every nook and cranny and shrub bush for lost photographs or items of sentimental value on behalf of these poor souls.

While the truth about misplacing value in the material world of houses, cars and even wallpaper holds true, what has really stuck with me has been the witness of the raw violence of the act in which these items can be suddenly taken.  Perhaps only a hurricane or tsunami can rival the wipe-the-slate proficiency of leaving only building foundations and mud.  Ocean going debris from 2011 Japan is only now beginning to reach the California coast this year.  Violence and nature…life in a material world.  Sobering.  And for the lady whose name is on the receipt.  I hope and pray she’ll be okay and someday when we both get some perspective, I’ll return the note.  But not now.  It’s better to not know how widely cast were the seeds of her life among strangers and the wild.

Friday, March 2, 2012

WLW turns 90

Cincinnati's legendary radio station WLW turns 90 years old today.  On March 2, 1922, the government (then the Department of Commerce, I believe) issued commercial broadcast license #312 authorizing the call letters WLW.  The station technically had been operating for several months as experimental station 8XAA.  There are some who claim the station was granted the experimental calls 8CR (for Crosley), but it would've been unprecedented to have a custom call at that time.  Anyway, WLW was born on this date and a big downtown gala was held several weeks later, on the 23rd.  WLW was the nation's 62nd commercial station, third in the area behind Hamilton's WRK (57th) and Cincinnati's WMH (29th), but the only one of those three to celebrate a tenth birthday.
The station certainly has changed over the years--in both personnel and format--but its history is still pretty impressive.  It has been ranked number one in the Cincinnati market for over a decade now, which bucks a national trend of diminishing ratings for AM radio.  Certainly movements towards the boom in talk radio in the 1980s as well as the boost by the local professional and college sports broadcasts have helped.  But the proof is in the numbers and the station has long been the high tide that floated all local radio boats.
In 1928, owner Powel Crosley purchased rival WSAI and shifted local programming to "Cincinnati's Own Station."  Crosley also won the right to be one of the first stations in the country to broadcast at 50,000 watts and dubbed his station, located in the center of the nation's population, "the Nation's Station."  But the story doesn't end there...    Almost immediately, Crosley engineers laid out plans for 500,000 watts---a half MILLION watts!  Permission was granted in 1934 and  coverage area, staff size and advertising income quadrupled. 
Power is an amazing thing and WLW had it both figuratively and literally.  By 1937, WLW was producing two dozen original programs, many carried across the network.  They also tormented NBC, its network.  WLW would pick and choose which network shows it was willing to carry.  On occasion, it would ask NBC to send the script because WLW felt it could produce it better with its own actors and orchestra.  Imagine Cincinnati's WLWT television today asking NBC for the script for this week's The Office because it wanted to produce the episode itself!   But 1930s WLW could pull it off because it kept teasing NBC by threatening to create its own network (WLW Line, the Mutual Network, etc.) and NBC couldn't afford to lose its largest affiliate.
The station had its ups and downs since the superpower era ended in 1939 (actually, late at night during WWII, they'd fire up the big transmitter for special government broadcasts).  The 1950s and 60s were a little rough because of the company's interest in television, but interest bounced back in the 70s with JFPO and the Reds, and the 80s with Scott, Burbank, McConnell, Cunningham et al .
I am proud to say I worked there for a year (1988-89) as a part-time newscaster ("Mike Morgan").  I started when the station was located on 4th Street downtown and was the first "regular" announcer to broadcast from the then-new Mt Adams studios (after the GM said a few words) on October 25th, 1988 (or was it the 26th?)  I remember that night fairly clearly and it was quite exciting.  The on-air staff, at the time, was not allowed to say "55" degrees because of bitter rival 55KRC.  Today the two former enemies are sister stations under the Clear Channel banner and the rivalry has been reduced to the fact that they are simply two studios, side by side, in a long hallway.
90-years is something special but can be put into perspective.  My kids have never known a time when there weren't computers, but I do.  I do not remember a time without television, but my parents do.  There are still many people walking around much older than radio.
Anyway, happy birthday to the "Nation's Station" and many more, I hope.